Confession: I have not always loved the Academic Conference. My first few conference experiences as a Master’s student left me confused and jaded: what was this strange ritual of the ivory tower? It seemed a desperate and pathetic attempt to fend off self-doubt through an incestuous validation of academic existence. I believe there’s wisdom in the “fake it till you make it” approach, but at my first couple conferences, I felt we were all still faking it.
Last weekend, though, I attended the Rocky Mountain MLA conference in Albuquerque—and knowing I’d be writing this blog post, I began to reflect on how things have changed since then. I’m happy to say that by and large, I’ve really begun not only to appreciate what conferences can do, but also to enjoy attending them—and for their own sake, not for the exotic locations. Thanks to my background at three universities, I now peruse online conference programs looking for names of friends, professors, or the occasional star. I usually find many sessions of interest and lament my inability to attend concurrent panels; when I attend, I’m more engaged as a listener, more able to follow ideas, and much more eager and willing to ask questions afterward. Simply because I’ve read more stuff than I had as a beginning MA student, more talks make sense, and the interconnections with my own interests become much more clear. And I’m much braver about introducing myself to strangers, and offering my hand for a handshake.
The difference in my conference experiences may rest somewhat in the conferences themselves, but clearly it has more to do with me. When I entered my PhD program two years after finishing my MA, plagued by feelings of inadequacy as I watched the whip-smart students around me, a wise ABD friend told me to “trust the process.” And she’s right: I’m still in the middle of it, but I can see my skills growing, and in consequence, my confidence, genuine intellectual interest, and enjoyment. So if any of you readers out there are anything like I was, take heart. It really does get better.
I had wondered whether the RMMLA would spread itself so wide that few panels would catch my interest. While certainly it’s nothing like the awesome focus-group one finds at NASSR, turns out that variety can be just as stimulating as specificity. The RMMLA reminded me in the best sense of being an undergraduate, back before I had determined my specializations and could nibble from any dish that looked appealing—only now the banquet is tastier, because I’ve learned to appreciate new foods. My own interests center on early 19th-century women and gardening, but in attending panels that seemed only tangentially related (or ones I went to just for fun), I marveled often at the threads of connection! Listening to readings from RMMLA prose authors rekindled my interest in creative writing; bumping into an old professor took me to a panel exploring women in Italian and Spanish literature, and my favorite panel (on “The Meaning of Food”) brought together a children’s lit expert, a 19th-century agricultural lit expert, and an exploration of advertisements from Trader Joe’s. One keynote speaker offered thoughts on Chinese poetry, another on the psychology of Beauty. I listened, took notes, and chatted…and the best part is, I wasn’t faking it.
It’s true that I didn’t see much of Albuquerque, other than the view from the shuttle window and my walk between hotels. I did, however, spend a weekend listening to new ideas, becoming acquainted with new people and interesting ideas, and retiring brain-tired and happy each night. Despite the genteel poverty that often accompanies graduate school, I can’t help but appreciate the luxury of spending my hours learning and pondering interesting stuff. That, plus some good friends and really great Mexican food, made this conference a success.
Though I had intended to post notes from the Graduate Student Forum (advice on CVs, cover letters, interviews, etc.), I’ve waxed poetic and won’t tire you with further musings. It will appear in my next post, though – and as fond as we all are of Romantic reflection and soul-searching, I promise a distillation of thoroughly practical advice!